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From 1837 until he went to Washington 
early in 1861, Abraham Lincoln was a prac- 
ticing lawyer. His interest in the law was not 
undivided because he frequently was absorbed 
in politics, but he made a good living for his 
family and became widely recognized as one 
of the ablest pleaders in Illinois. 

Lincoln was 27 years old when he received 
his law license. For a man who had enjoyed 
only a few terms in pioneer schools and had 
worked with his hands throughout his early 
life, the intellectual accomplishment of suc- 
cessfully studying for a legal career was note- 
worthy. Four years earlier when he returned 
from serving as a captain in the Black Hawk 
War, Lincoln had "thought of learning the 
blacksmith trade — thought of trying to study 
law — rather thought he could not succeed at 
that without a better education." It was two 
years later that he took positive steps toward 
becoming a lawyer. When he was campaign- 
ing for election to the legislature in 1834, he 
was persuaded to take up the study by Major 
John T. Stuart, another candidate of the 
Whig Party. Here is the way Lincoln himself 
described his law education for a campaign 
biography written many years later: 

"After the election he borrowed books of 
Stuart, took them home with him, and went 
at it in good earnest. He studied with nobody. 
He still mixed in the surveying to pay board 
and clothing bills. When the legislature met, 
the lawbooks were dropped, but were taken up 




This artist's impression of Lincoln pleading the cele- 
brated Armstrong case of 1858 is erroneous in show- 
ing Lincoln wearing a beard, which he did not start 
to grow until after his election in 1860. Duff Arm- 
strong and his widowed mother, sentimentally por- 
trayed, are seated at the table, right. 



again at the end of the session." It took two 
years of hard study before he got his license 
in 1836, and it was April 15, 1837, when he 
left New Salem to become Stuart's law partner 
in Springfield. In 1841 he became the partner 
of Judge Stephen T. Logan, and in 1844 he 
formed his final partnership with William H. 
Herndon. 

The practice of law in Lincoln's time re- 
quired a great deal of traveling. Although 
Springfield was the state capital, the courts 
there were in session only part of the year. 
An ambitious lawyer had to spend many days 
"on the circuit" traveling; to other counties 



for terms of court. The roads were sometimes 
bad, and lawyers had to travel in all kinds of 
weather. But apparently there were many com- 
pensations. In discussing a law career with 
his son Robert many years later, Lincoln said, 
"If you become a lawyer you will probably 
make more money at it than I ever did, but 
you won't have half the fun." 

The "fun" consisted of the good fellowship 
with other lawyers, ample opportunities for 
trading wit, and the challenge of besting his 
friendly rivals in open court. Almost certainly 
the enjoyment also stemmed from the oppor- 
tunity to indulge in politics at the same time. 

Already embarked on a political career be- 
fore he studied law, Lincoln continued to 
serve in the legislature until 1841. He was an 
active campaigner for the Whig presidential 
candidates in 1840 and 1844, and in 1846 he 
was elected to the House of Representatives for 
a two-year term. He did not seek re-election 
and devoted the next five years almost ex- 
clusively to his law practice. In 1854, the re- 
peal of the Missouri Compromise triggered 
his return to politics, and he began the 
sequence of speeches and candidacies which 
led to the White House. 

By the 1850s, he had become a prominent 
lawyer for the railroads. Perhaps his most 
important case was his defense in a suit test- 
ing the right to put a bridge over a navigable 
body of water. The Effie Afton, a Mississippi 



River steamer, had run against the pier of the 
Rock Island Bridge and had been destroyed. 
Lincoln ably defended the right to build such 
bridges, and the court's decision removed a 
serious obstacle to the building of transconti- 
nental railroads. 

The Effie Afton case was tried in 1857, the 
year before Lincoln, running for the Senate, 
participated in the famous series of debates 
with Stephen A. 
Douglas. In 1358, 
busy as he was 
with politics and 
high-level legal 
work, he still had 
time to heed a call 
from out of his 
past. "Duff"' Arm- 
strong, the son of 

friends from his This photograph of Lincoln 
_ T „ , was taken in Chicago during 

JMew Salem days, February, 1857, the year of 

was accused of the E S ie A f ton case - 
murder, and Lincoln offered to help defend 
him. In this case, often used as the basis for 
stories and plays about Lincoln, he discredited 
the prosecution's star witness by proving, with 
the aid of an almanac, that there was insuffi- 
cient moonlight for the witness to have seen 
what he described in great detail. For his 
efforts, Lincoln would not accept a fee from 
Duff's widowed mother. 




On his last afternoon in Springfield before 
entraining for Washington and the presidency, 
Lincoln told his law partner: "Give our clients 
to understand that the election of a President 
makes no change in the firm of Lincoln & 
Herndon. If I live I'm coming back some time, 
and then we'll go right on practicing law as 
if nothing had ever happened." 

ON THE COVER: This statuette of Lincoln "The 
Circuit Rider" by Fred M. Torrey is located at 
Lincoln's tomb in Springfield, Illinois. 



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